On Friday, January 27, 2017, seven days after being sworn into office, President Trump signed Executive Order 13769. Commonly referred to as the “Muslim Ban,” the order stopped foreign nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States, denied entry to all Syrian refugees indefinitely, and put a 120-day stay on any other refugees entering the country.

Ayla Kadah, a UW School of Law 3L who grew up in Syria, remembers this day well. At the time, she was a University of Washington senior majoring in psychology and communications. It was her birthday. Dozens of messages from family and friends lit up her phone, not in celebration but in panic.

“I remember how helpless people felt as our community was under attack,” she says. “We were witnessing the institutionalization of xenophobia and the codification of white supremacy in an executive order. The law was being weaponized against my community — it wasn’t completely new, but it felt so brazen to see it happening in real-time.”

The next day, when the law went into effect, attorneys from ACLU-WA and the NW Immigrant Rights Project converged at SeaTac airport to assist those on incoming flights being denied entry. “Seeing lawyers making sure families were reunited alongside organizers and community members was the antidote to how powerless I felt,” says Kadah. “It also made me realize the critical role lawyers can play within movements and alongside organizers.”

This pivotal moment inspired Kadah to go to law school. Five years later, she’s being recognized as a member of the Husky 100, a distinction that celebrates students who are making the most of their time at UW.

Public Service and Organizing

Kadah’s been busy gaining experience and learning from mentors. Following the events on her birthday, she helped organize a community-led response to the Muslim Ban. She also became the campaign manager for Rebecca Saldaña, who voters subsequently elected to the Washington State Senate. Then she served as a legislative aide in the senator’s office. “Senator Saldaña has inspired me in the way she navigates public service,” says Kadah. “It’s been meaningful to see her couple that role with her organizing chops. She comes from a history of labor organizing among farmworkers and janitors. She carries those dualities in a way that deeply resonates with me.”

Ayla Kadah, photographed for the Huskly 100.

Within a tight legislative timeline, Kadah worked with the Washington Voting Rights Restoration Coalition to address a loophole that prevented formerly incarcerated people still under community custody from voting. The effort succeeded. “That coalition dared to build something radically different, defying traditional approaches to legislative work and advocacy,” Kadah says. “While our policy goals were clear, we placed great emphasis on the process by which we achieved those goals. More than anything, this meant prioritizing the leadership and wisdom of incarcerated people and their families.”

She mentions the impact of the UW School of Law Race and Justice Clinic under the supervision of Teaching Professor Kim Ambrose. “I could never have foreseen how transformative that clinic experience would be,” says Kadah. “We worked with young people of color who were pushed out of school, given extreme sentences and stigmatized by criminal records. Professor Ambrose created a space that operated with the awareness that no one, including lawyers, understands the criminal legal system better than those who have been through it.”

Another influential person for Kadah has been Assistant Professor of Law Angélica Cházaro. “I’ve deeply admired her since I started my law school journey,” Kadah says. “Leading by example, she’s taught me so much about the role of organizing in lawyering.” All of these experiences have informed Kadah’s legal advocacy, most recently with the Washington Appellate Project.

The Art of Movement Lawyering

Kadah describes movement lawyering as a practice that centers organizers and impacted communities fighting for social change. “How can we shift power, not just by reforming or abolishing systems of violence, but by reducing organizers’ need for and reliance on lawyers?” she asks.

She also thinks about the different ways lawyers can show up, given that they often interact with people on the worst day of their lives. “The legal system can be such a harsh environment and feel so depersonalized,” she says. “I’m interested in expanding what’s possible when it comes to our interpersonal relationships with each other.”

She has a few ideas. “Beyond providing legal support, lawyers can learn to show up in practical ways,” she says. “We can come in early to help set up for an organizing meeting, stay late to help clean up, move a couch into a space, or watch people’s kids so they can attend meetings. These things seem unremarkable, but they allow folks experiencing the heaviest burdens of systemic violence to step into their full power.”

At its core, it’s a stance rooted in humility. “People can advocate for themselves, and you can amplify that instead of assuming that having a J.D. makes you the expert or authority on what it means to achieve social change,” she says. “Instead of giving a voice to the voiceless, pass the mic.”